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The Access to Higher Education Diploma

The Access to Higher Education Diploma


15 Oct, 2018

Opportunities and challenges for students with a Services background

The Access to Higher Education (Access to HE) Diploma is a widely recognised qualification that provides a second chance for adults who left school without the qualifications needed to enter higher education. It is regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). 

The idea of studying for a degree had always been in the back of my mind, but I’d never looked into it seriously

Chris Healey, former Access to HE student 


Last year, 24,895 successful Access to HE students started university – most of them were over 21 and returning to study after a break. Many of them had studied courses to prepare them for jobs in areas with skills shortages, which therefore helped them contribute to UK productivity. More than 90% of Access to HE graduates were in employment or further study six months after they completed their degree. The most popular subjects studied at university by Access to HE students are nursing and other subjects allied to medicine, social studies (including social work) and education.

As a Services child, Sue Nelson’s education was disrupted – she had attended 11 schools by the time she was 12. She started her Access to HE course at the age of 43, taking the difficult decision to give up her job. After completing her degree she became a lecturer, providing support and inspiration to others like her. 

Alan Searle, a 33-year-old widow with three children, was a former engineer looking to return to work after taking time out to look after his family following the death of his wife. He did not have the qualifications he needed to gain employment and needed to re-skill, so he took an Access to HE Diploma. During his course he was diagnosed with dyslexia and was given additional support to make his learning difficulty work to his advantage. He completed his degree and a postgraduate teaching qualification, and became a lecturer, sharing his experience with others in similar situations. He now runs his own business providing training on team working and resilience.

The other students and staff made the transition back into education a very enjoyable and exciting experience.

Alan Searle 

Education plays an important role in individual personal development. For many Access to HE students, the Diploma has changed their lives and helped them pursue a graduate profession or gain promotion. Research by Bath Spa University (see the accompanying graphic) also showed that the Diploma helped Service leavers in their transition from military to civilian life – taking part in an Access to HE Diploma brings together adults who are making that transition to a new life.

The Access course, for me, was deprogramming the Army and reprogramming the civvy.


The Diploma is different to other qualifications in that it also uses the experience and life skills of the students taking it; students use their skills to support one another and manage their time. The most recent data show that Access to HE students are less likely to leave their degree courses than mature students with other qualifications.

Retired policeman Chris Healey started an Access to HE course in 2007 after taking on a number of unfulfilling consultancy roles. He took a course in politics, history, American studies and business studies before taking a degree in archaeology. He says: ‘Walking into the course on my first day was very nerve racking after such a long time away from formal education. However, I was amazed to discover that I wasn’t the oldest person there and other students had similar life experiences to mine.’

Access to HE Diplomas are available in a wide range of subjects, from engineering to nursing. More than 1,000 QAA-recognised Access to HE Diplomas are listed on the database on the Access to HE website. You can search by subject, college or location. Most Diplomas are taught in further education colleges. However, they are also available from private training providers, some of which offer distance learning study options. 


They need to make it clear that you can have the option of doing a degree, even when you don’t have A-levels … and be sure that you understand the [Publicly Funded FE/HE] scheme.



There are no funds to help spouses [education], yet I’d given up my career so that he could have one.

Services spouse

Service leavers have a number of options to fund their studies: 

  • Enhanced Learning Credits (if you’re registered) 
  • the Publicly Funded FE/HE scheme (the higher education course must be done immediately after the Access to HE course)
  • Advanced Learner Loan.

An Advanced Learner Loan might be an option and repayments don’t begin until you start to earn more than £25,000 per year. And if you achieve a QAA-recognised Access to HE course, the balance of the loan will be written off when you complete your higher education studies. 

Advanced Learner Loans attract interest from the time your first payment is made until the loan is paid back in full. Interest is charged at the rate of inflation plus up to 3%.3

Many universities and charities also offer bursaries to students to pay for things like course materials, travel or childcare. To find out more about bursaries you need to speak to your course provider. Transition charities may also be able to help.

It is important to look at your funding options carefully to make sure you make the best choice for you and your family. Access to HE providers, your education officer or transition staff should be able to help you choose the best route. 

Find out more 

You may find the following websites helpful.

Access to HE website: 

Real-life stories:

Diploma database:

Advanced Learner Loans:

Enhanced Learning Credits: